Should the Revolution Have a Vegan Option?

French people don’t give a shit about lifestyle politics.

Okay, it’s a generalization, but—despite my short residence and limited language skills—there’s some truth to it. I saw it on May Day, among the anarchists selling Coca-Cola products and candy bars, and I saw it at a “zero waste” conference where the attendees couldn’t manage to get their paper plates into the recycle bin. But mostly, I see it every time I go to an activist event with food—and, being France, there’s always food—and am confronted by the wholesale lack of anything vegetarian. Even the incredibly low bar of having something that is not pork, in a country with a sizeable Muslim population, is rarely reached.

As someone coming from the Bay—the land of gluten-free, of re-useable shopping bags, of farmers’ market parking lots crammed with Priuses—this has been a bit of a jolt. But being in France has challenged me to re-evaluate my politics: in the face of climate change, of billions of animals slaughtered, of global labor exploitation, does the way I live actually matter? I’m pretty sure the chain-smoking, sweatshop-buying French communists I know would say “no.” In fact, in my (usually disastrous) forays into the French language, I’ve learned that talking about “la politique” makes no sense without referencing political parties or the state. In French, “lifestyle politics” is a bit like talking about “non-political politics.”

Much like universal healthcare, what is taken for granted in France is up for debate in the U.S. In fact, hating on lifestyle politics is totally huge on the left right now.* There’s the old Derrick Jensen article, “Forget Shorter Showers,” and the more recent “Stop Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint” that I’ve been sent three times. And—thankfully—sociologists have finally added their ever-weighty opinions to the matter. Exhibit one is Samatha MacBride’s (fantastic) Recycling Reconsidered, which pretty much dismembers the idea that recycling has any impact beyond making us feel good. Her conclusion that we need to “relegate notions of personal commitment and responsibility…to the backburner” pretty much sums up the post-lifestyle zeitgeist. It’s not just that buying local is useless—it’s that it actively detracts from useful things, be it direct action or harassing our Congressperson.

Okay, I get it: the old premise behind my veganism—that each of us could save 95 animals a year, starting today, thanks to the magical power of supply and demand—is bunk. Regardless of what the economists tell us, the world is not an aggregate of individual consumptive choices. But I still want to be vegan, and I’d like a reason a bit more utilitarian than just saying it’s the right thing to do.

Fortunately, even France managed to furnish a justification. I was at an anti-waste event the other week, sitting with a group of dumpster divers on the margins (scoffing at the respectable people in suits and their power point presentations and, you know, real political program for change), and one of the caterers on his break sat next to us. “Do you see how many beer bottles they’re leaving half-full?” he observed, “And they’re telling me I need to waste less?” Whatever we think of lifestyle politics, we have to acknowledge that, even as political actors, we are increasingly judged on personal criteria. We live in an age of heightened scrutiny, and our consistency matters—not because being consistent changes the world in itself, but because inconsistency is an easy excuse to discredit us.

There are other reasons, too, to keep taking shorter showers. We need to acknowledge the profound disempowerment that most people—even privileged people—feel today, and recognize that the one area where people do feel they have some efficacy is in their consumptive choices. If we are serious about the movement-building maxim of “starting where people are at,” we need to acknowledge that most people approach problems in their lives by purchasing something. What’s more, the glorying in the irrelevance of personal choices leaves me wondering  how many activists actually want to live in the world they claim they’re trying to create through direct action and political organizing. Because guess what: you really are going to have to take shorter showers and eat less meat and buy less shit in our future utopia, even if you don’t see any of these as tactics to get us there.

Having a vegan option isn’t going to precipitate a revolution. But, to do a great injustice to Emma Goldman, it isn’t a revolution if I can’t have something ethical to eat.

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* I mean this, of course, referring to the tiny leftist echo chambers in which I exist. It’s kind of like how my punk friends and I thought the Dropkick Murphy’s were a “huge” band in 2003 because more than two people at my high school had heard of them.

Fool Me Twice

I had only been going into New York to hang out with for a month when I featured in my first media story. A Dutch journalist was quite taken with the incongruity of a Princeton University student going through the garbage, and despite my protestations that there were way more knowledgeable people in the group for him to talk to, I wound up featuring in his article. In fact, I was the main character: the first sentence, according to a friend, approximately read, “Alex Barnard is wading through shit on the streets of New York City.”

Most reporters who visited trash tours, though, were way more interested in the others involved in the group—the people who had organized their entire lives around freeganism. I was always in awe of how good the spokespeople for were. Night after night, I saw them turn an aberrant activity like dumpster diving into a common-sense response to waste, and spinning our abhorrence of people in the garbage into a surprisingly relatable critique of capitalism. I’ve been involved in a couple of different social movements now and, when it came to manipulating the media, was good.

Then again, I never actually bothered to look at the stories that were getting published. After all, I figured, I had a front-row seat to freeganism. Whatever the media was showing had to just be a dimmer version of what I was seeing. It’s only been lately, in writing up my book, that I’ve gone back and looked at some of what was published in the halcyon days of 2007 to 2009.

It’s kind of hard to believe that the TV spots and newspaper articles are really about the same people that I spent two years with. There’s the ABC report with the “Psycho” sound effects when Cindy opens a trash bag; the Wall Street Journal Reporter who cuts off Janet’s discussion of waste to say “I’m interested in the eating for free angle”; the blathering quotes from public health officials about food safety and fawning praise on stores donating a trivial amount of food for charity. Sometimes I wonder: were they really there?

There’s something so seductive about the media, especially to anyone who’s used to seeing their views ignored by it. For what it’s worth, sans media attention to freeganism, food waste would never have become the “issue” it is today. And, because of this, there’s a certain persistent faith that if we just do a better job of “slipping in the message”, we’ll fool the corporate behemoths into turning the airwaves into a conduit of anti-capitalist propaganda.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. In a pique of arrogance, I’ve been doing media work again. I was allured by the promise of a long, investigative piece about food waste, of which dumpster diving was only to be a small part. I took the reporters on a dive and to a public re-distribution of food; I talked about over-production and commoditization; I argued that stores threw things out not because they were careless or negligent, but because wasting is profitable in a capitalist system. I told them that the issue wasn’t my lifestyles or my carbon footprint; that I didn’t expect the whole world to start dumpster diving; that I recognized my own privilege that allowed me to engage in the act.

The piece aired a few weeks ago and, as they come, it wasn’t bad. The reporters traveled to a town that mandated food donations; they interviewed distributors, managers, and activists; they played down the safety concerns around food waste. The part where I featured, though, was painful. I declared myself an “activist” against the “system”, but they cut out any explanation of what the system was or how what I was doing might change it. I spouted some platitudes about how great the food in the dumpster was, before launching into an (edited out) explanation of how it got there. As far as anyone watching this is concerned, I was the guy who eats garbage.

Todd Gitlin writes that Students for a Democratic Society activists in the 1960s were alienated from their own representations, media products which “stood outside their ostensible makers…confronting them as an alien force.” I know that guy on TV, but I’m definitely not that stupid.


“Has anyone here ever been part of a union before?”  No hands go up.

“Does anyone here think they’ll be in a union after they graduate?” Still no hands.

“How about this: who thinks they’ll someday be on the other side of a negotiating table from a union?”  Finally, hands go up, along with a smattering of laughter.

My first act as a Head Steward for United Auto Workers Local 2865—which represents 12,000 academic workers across the UC system—was making a membership pitch to business school students.  It wasn’t particularly successful, but I was optimistic about the broader project of union-building nonetheless. Our union felt like the most vibrant social movement on campus, fighting for public education and a preparing to negotiate a fair contract.  Compared to my previous forays with activist groups, the union seemed remarkably well-run and non-dysfunctional.  I was even excited about going through departments knocking on doors, a chance to confront my phobia of pushing strangers into political action.

My enthusiasm didn’t last long.  I found the apathy of my fellow graduate students disturbing and disheartening.  After all, for once I wasn’t trying to get people to help the animals or save the planet, but just to take a few simple actions to benefit their own bottom-line.  And, as it turned out, the union wasn’t quite as harmonious as I thought.  The endless internecine bickering between different union caucuses—taking place as the real foe, the university, prepared to screw us massively in contract negotiations—was off putting.  And, of course, I was wickedly depressed.  In August of this year, I resigned from my post as Head Steward without completing my term.  I’m not sure if, in those seven months, I convinced a single person to sign a membership card.

That was the end of my time as a union organizer but not, as it turned out, the end of my involvement in the union.  My decision in October to leave Berkeley meant abruptly dropping my position as a Graduate Student Instructor, which in turn was covering my fees for the semester.  Technically, I was legally entitled to two weeks of paid leave, which would just barely put me over the threshold at which the university was obligated to pay my tuition.  But none of the administrators I talked to mentioned this fact.  A few weeks later, a bill arrived: $7,500—full tuition, without even partial remission to compensate for the five weeks I had actually worked.

I had no energy or willpower for a fight against the UC bureaucratic juggernaut, and reluctantly resigned myself to draining my savings to pay the bill.  But a steward in our department asked if he could look into the situation, and I acquiesced.  I wish I could say I was an active participant in the process that followed, but in truth, I did virtually nothing.  On the other hand, a union activist—one with whom I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with in months—held who-knows-how-many meetings with the administration.  Eventually, the department caved and my bill vanished.

Being me, I of course feel slightly guilty about this favorable outcome.  Couldn’t that money have gone to something better?  But I guess that’s why we have unions: to fight for us, as workers, when we can’t or won’t fight for ourselves.  I joined UAW 2865 because it fought for grand causes like re-funding public education or reducing income inequality.  In the end, though, solidarity for me has a less sexy, but no less important, meaning.

November 9th and the Changing Repertoires of Activism

The reports are just rolling in, and boy, has it been enlightening.  A few weeks ago, the University of California Police Department released a report determining that the real source of problems at Berkeley on November 9th was that police weren’t allowed enough “force options”—particular, pepper spray. Shortly thereafter, a quasi-independent review board at Davis came to a somewhat divergent conclusion that, there, the use of pepper spray was “objectively unreasonable.”  And, after seven months of painstaking research, the Berkeley Police Review Board has closed the book on November 9th by declaring that campus police “may” have violated campus norms and procedures.  One wonders: isn’t a “possible” violation of the rules usually the starting premise for an investigation, not its end point?

Of the lot, I think the Edley/Robinson report to the UC President comes closest to saying something interesting about November 9th—which is ironic, because it was the only report which wasn’t tasked with investigating what happened on November 9th.  One thing about the report stood out to me in particular.  Early on, the authors note:

Although we began this project by addressing “protest” activity generally, we soon realized that the central challenge before us related to civil disobedience… It is only when demonstrators engage in civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with laws or regulations as a form of protest or as a means of drawing attention to the demonstrators’ message—that more complicated and controversial issues arise (5)

I think the authors are on to something.  Policing “protest” at Berkeley isn’t complicated, because most of the 50-or-so registered “protests” at Berkeley are sanctioned, contained, and, ultimately, totally meaningless.  The issue, really, is about how to deal with certain kinds of protest tactics that deviate from this predictable norm.

In a sense, I’m grateful that the authors called what we were doing “civil disobedience.” After all, immediately after November 9th, Chancellor Birgeneau sent out an e-mail claiming that we hay “betrayed” the legacy of the civil rights movement.  Now, by calling what we did “civil disobedience”, they are now implicitly connecting us to that tradition.  For me, at least, civil disobedience immediately conjures the image of black college students in the deep south, sitting patiently at a segregated lunch counter, bravely bearing police harassment and violence in order to dramatize injustice and spur legislators to action.  It’s an overly generous comparison, and while I’m not sure we’ve quite lived up to it, I’ll take it.

There’s only one problem: what we were doing on November 9th wasn’t civil disobedience, it was direct action.  While for Occupy Wall Street activists and their ilk this is all fairly obvious, I think that the difference between “civil disobedience” and “direct action” is crucial for understanding what happened in November, and why things ended so badly.  And, because it relates to my current research interests, it seems like a good starting point for a brief excursus into the sociology of protest repertoires.

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Activists like to think of social movements as strategic actors, cleverly adapting innovating new tactics to achieve their goals.  In truth, though, activists tend to resort to the same narrow range of tactics—like marches, demonstrations, and petitions—over and over again, while ignoring a host of theoretically possible other ways to express dissent.  These “repertoires” of protest tend to vary coherently over time and between countries.  As the late sociologist Chuck Tilly demonstrated, prior to the 19th century people “protested” by acting directly to address the problems they perceived.  If a group of people thought bread prices were too high, they would riot and seize the granary.  If they didn’t like a tax on tea, they’d throw the tea into the sea.  If you were pissed off at your feudal lord, you’d burn down his house.

In early 19th century England, though, this changed.  Protesting moved from the realm of the material to the symbolic: instead of acting directly, people sought redress indirectly by making appeals to powerful external actors.  The rise of what Tilly calls our “modern repertoire” of contentious politics, then, is closely tied to the rise of democracy.  Although civil disobedience might seem to be much more radical than an orderly march, it still follows the same basic logic of other actions in that repertoire.  Even if CD by nature emerges from a frustration with the ineffectiveness of institutional political acts, like voting, it still requires a belief that the system as a whole basically works.  You don’t do CD unless you believe that elected representatives will eventually be responsive, if only you show—through breaking the law—that your particular cause is an important one.  The paradox of civil disobedience, then, is that it simultaneously reinforces the legitimacy of the political system even as it trespasses one part of it.  The black students carrying out sit-ins were violating one particular law, but in so doing they were validating “The Law” and the representative-democracy from which it flows as the appropriate way to address it.*

Since the 1960s, CD has become an increasingly routinized part of the protesting landscape.  In annual demonstrations against nuclear power plants, for example, demonstrators will often arrange with the police beforehand, making their own inevitable arrest an integral part of their message.  But this is only part of the story of how protest tactics have evolved in the last few decades.  Although “direct action” never really disappeared—strikes, for example, are in some respects direct actions—I believe (and, hopefully, will someday empirically document) there has been a major upsurge in this tactic.  The “direct” shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999, is a visible example, but projects like “guerilla gardens” started in abandoned lots or Food Not Bombs’ free meals from discarded food are also “direct actions.”  The demise of state-socialism has, I think, effected a change towards anarchist models of organizing that prioritize these kinds of tactics that attempt to immediately, and directly, change society.

This is a major shift.  As John Rawls suggests, CD only makes sense if you believe you live in a “nearly-just society”; DA, on the other hand, is a tool for those who believe that the whole system of representative democracy is broken and the best we can do is work around it at every turn.  And, of course, while the lines between CD and DA are always fuzzy, the two entail profoundly different ways of relating to the police.  As David Graeber notes:

Those carrying out a ‘civil disobedience may willingly surrender themselves to the police; even if they don’t…they act in the full expectation they will wind up in jail…Direct actionists, in contrast…are trying their best to get away with it (Direct Action: An Ethnography: 205).

In short, for the civilly-disobedient, the police are an integral part of the script of a protest; for the direct actionist, they are a hazard.

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A charitable reading of the Edley and Robinson report is that the authors are trying to return us to a previous model in which civil disobedience was, well, civil.  After all, within Occupy, it has often seemed like the tacit understanding between police and protesters engaged in CD—you let us break the law, and we’ll let you arrest us and face the consequences—had broken down.  After November 9th, I found myself wondering why no officer ever bothered to ask me if I would submit to arrest peacefully.  In this respect, Edley/Robinson—with its call for mediation and dialogue—seems like a step in the right direction.

But would it have changed anything?  For better or for worse, on November 9th, we wanted to “get away with it”—not make a statement through getting arrested.  We weren’t setting up an encampment because we wanted to dramatize the irrationality of the university’s rule against encampments.  Nor were our tents a publicity stunt to get legislators to wake up and pay attention to our concerns.  We were making a direct intervention into the operation of the university, attempting to create a real (not just symbolic) alternative to privatization and austerity.  Had the university attempted to mediate, we probably would have ignored them; had they asked us if we wanted to be arrested, we likely would have said “No.”

A lot of occupiers like the way that DA “heightens the contradictions” within our system, forcing authorities into a binary choice between letting protesters do what the want—whether occupying a public space or starting a farm on nominally “private property”—or engaging in spectacularly stupid acts of repression.  The point, though, is that not everyone realizes this is happening.  People like Edley/Robinson continue to believe that they are dealing with a variant of classic civil disobedience, and so they’re confused as to why activists aren’t playing their part.   Sociologically, it’s a fascinating moment, in which there are not just divergent opinions about the issues we’re protesting about, but also different conceptions of what these protests actually are.  For protesters, though, it’s bad news, as the police and some elements of the administration seem to have picked up on the fact that the only way to stop direct action is to beat people into submission – which is why, for all it’s reasonableness, the Edley/Robinson report will be completely ignored.

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* Of course, this may reflect the fact that – were they to do anything more radical – the violence against them would be even more extreme.

The Long Haul

After a fall spent trying to make some social change, this spring I’ve withdrawn into my more comfortable habitus: reading about social change.  I’ve been particularly drawn to stories about the Civil Rights movement, perhaps because I’ve been desperate to remind myself that change does in fact happen every once in a while.

Most recently, I read Doug McAdam’s, Freedom Summer, which chronicles one of the most pivotal moments in the trajectory of 1960s activism.  Frustrated with their inability to draw significant attention from the white, Northern liberals they needed to pass Civil Rights legislation, the black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hatched a plan to bring hundreds of white students from elite universities to the deep south for voter registration.  Confronted with poverty and racism that white Northerners had previously ignored, the volunteers were profoundly radicalized. As McAdam charts, Freedom Summer volunteers went back to school in the fall and were pivotal in launching the movements that defined the New Left and the latter half of the 1960s.  Case in point: Berkeley legend Mario Savio, future spokesman of the Free Speech Movement, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.*

McAdam caught up with the activists twenty years later and found that, contrary to the popular narrative about ‘60s radicals, most Freedom Summer volunteers did not “sell out” or turn conservative.  Continuing political engagement, though, came at a price. When the ‘60s were over, the activists felt like they were coming down off of a years-long “freedom high”.  Even those who wanted to fully reintegrate into mainstream society struggled to maintain “regular” jobs or “normal” relationships.  There are some political experiences, it would seem, that you just can’t shake.

This spring, I think many activists could relate: I, for one, am suffering an “occupy hangover”.  Not that my experiences could possibly come close to those of the Freedom Summer volunteers.  I can’t even entirely relate to those who, this past fall, quit their jobs to move to encampments or who spent hundreds of hours in General Assemblies. Nonetheless, as a wise comrade recently posted on facebook, I miss knowing that the encampments were there, that there were thousands of people out there who shared my concern for the state of the world and my desire to do something about it.  Not that there aren’t still protests and demonstrations: I’m excited for May Day and inspired by the creativity and boldness of yesterday’s Occupy the Farm action.  It’s just that, no matter how many people come out for them, the sense of infinite possibility, of existing in a moment of real historical import, has disappeared, crushed by police batons, dishonest media coverage, and the realization that too many people still don’t give a damn.  Looking back at blog posts from the fall, I’m almost embarrassed at the optimism, the naivety: it’s part of why it’s been so difficult to write (the schoolwork doesn’t help either).

My search for a meaningful, post-occupation place to put my energy brought me to where it almost always does: feeding people.  In February, I started volunteering with East Bay Food Not Bombs, which serves over a thousand meals a week, almost entirely from food that would otherwise go to waste. My previous image of Food Not Bombs was one of self-involved hipsters; in East Bay, though, FNB is a fabulous amalgam of squatters from Oakland, remnants of Berkeley’s various communist parties, self-described homeless-activists, and some elderly women who, despite visually fitting the church-ladies-in-soup-kitchens stereotype, have repeatedly assured me that that they are anarchists.  There are limits to the political change that can be accomplished with free food, of course, but in an age where even the most meagre of public benefits are becoming a “privilege”, serving a no-questions-asked vegetarian meal feels radical enough for me.

It helps that, with Food Not Bombs, I’ve been plugged into a community of activists which existed long before Occupy and, I imagine, will persist long past it. Five days a week, we serve in People’s Park, only three blocks away from campus but a no-go zone for most students, who are wary of its residents.  A few weeks ago, I was invited to a “People’s Park Oral History Night” at a local infoshop.  There, a long-haired man in his 70s shared how he and other students seized the park from the university in 1969, declaring it a “liberated” space that would serve as a haven for the dispossessed and a launch-pad for organizing against “The War”.**  “In the 1960s, there were thousands of us”, another old activist said.  “In the ‘90s”—when the university tried to retake the park and activists fended them off in five days of rioting—“there were hundreds.”  Now, he admitted, “There are only a few dozen of us greybeards left.”

And yet, somehow, these activists have stayed committed.  They survived Reagan when, as Governor of California, he declared martial law in downtown Berkeley, and they survived Reagan when, as President, he dismembered the welfare programs they fought for in the 1960s.  They were pissed off when Bush went to war brazenly and openly, and they’re pissed off that Obama is doing it covertly.  The costs of their dedication are obvious: most everyone I talked to has led a difficult life, one in which they traded in financial stability and social acceptance for “the cause”.  And, in the end, they have few tangible victories—other than a couple-acre park that most everyone in Berkeley seems to hate—to show for it.

Hearing their stories made me feel guilty to have taken a pause to focus on my studies after only a few months of activity.  But when I told this to the other activists that night, they all said I have nothing to be ashamed of.  People cover for one another; when one person steps back to take care of him or herself, there’s another at a point where he or she can step forward.  The community is always active, even if we, as activists, have to focus on ourselves once in a while.  I was reminded of how lucky I am to be in a place like Berkeley, where there are older activists to show me that this isn’t just a passing phase, even if there are a few days, months, or even years where I’m behind a desk and not out on the streets.

As if to drive the point home, the next day I learned that one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers was part of Freedom Summer back in ’64.  Who knows what he did in the intervening forty-seven years; but now, he comes down to People’s Park almost every day, wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and serves food with a bunch of anarchists.

It seems more than a coincidence that infoshop where the event was held is called the Long Haul.

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* Fun fact: the interview report for Mario Savio’s application to be a Freedom Summer volunteer describes him as “not very creative” and “one of those average people”.

** There is only one war in Berkeley: Vietnam.

“I Don’t Actually Hate Bankers” and Other Thoughts on the Open Letter (Part 1)

With all the time I spend reading Marx with other graduate students and talking revolution with other activists, I occasionally forget that my world is largely populated by people who don’t share my particular line of leftist politics.  I’ve been reminded of the political diversity of my friends during conversations about the open letter which a group of alumni wrote in support of Occupy Princeton.  Caveats within the letter’s message that were clear in my activist brain are, understandably, not obvious to others.

I’ve written this post to respond to some criticisms—both voiced and unvoiced—that could be and have been made about the form of the open letter, in the hopes that it will allow us to talk more about its substance: the question of the appropriate role of finance on campus and Princeton’s response to growing economic inequlity.*

“Investment bankers are not bad people; why are you attacking them?”  Princeton graduates working in finance—like Princeton graduates who go on to do more school, become fellows at Teach for America, or work in other industries—are not good or bad people; they’re just people.  I know that Princetonians go into finance for all sorts of reasons: some like the challenge, others the money, and still others because they see the industry as playing a valuable role in our society.  I have friends who work in finance, and I certainly don’t think I’m “better” than them: after all, reading social theory in graduate school isn’t exactly saving the world either.  But institutions matter, and there is now ample evidence that the milieu of Wall Street has created cultures of excessive risk-taking and hyper-competitiveness which have proven themselves to be harmful both to society and the people taking part in them.  

“What Occupy Princeton did was really rude!” As Michael Lewis pointed out in his recent column on Occupy Princeton, an easy way to ignore the substance of a message is to criticize the way it is delivered.  I have some misgivings about the way Occupy groups are using “Mic Checks” to shut down events, but let’s keep some perspective: we live in a society where millions of dollars from anonymous donors can be poured into nasty attack ads and protesters are being beaten, gassed, and shot while peaceably assembling.  The fact that Occupy Princeton’s three minute interruption in a recruiting event might have made some people uncomfortable is not a good reason to ignore it.  Princeton students ought to be made of sterner stuff.

“Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a debate about finance?”  No, it wouldn’t have.  In my time at Princeton, I helped organize a number of debates and lectures on vegetarianism, nearly all of which were poorly attended.  Why?  Because people generally don’t seek out situations where they’re going to be told they’re doing something wrong.  Certainly, I doubt that stressed Princeton seniors would be interested in hearing about how they should not take jobs in one of the few industries still hiring.  But sometimes people do need to be shown the implications of their decisions, and at times the only way to do so is through confrontation.

“Why kick J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off campus? Shouldn’t we be trying to engage with them more constructively?”  Bankers are well aware that most Americans loathe their industry (although banks are still slightly more popular than Congress and Fidel Castro).  Rather than make a public case for the value of finance, though, institutions like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have used backdoor influence to thwart overwhelmingly popular efforts at financial regulation.  When Occupy Wall Street started, these same institutions engaged in ad hominem attacks on protesters—deriding them as unwashed, lazy hippies—rather than countering the substance of the protesters’ message.  Given the unwillingness of these institutions to even entertain the idea that they need to reform, the best course of action is to challenge their bottom line—by pinching their top source of employees—and force them to get serious about their obligations to society.

“But Princeton students have a right to work where they want!”  We throw around “rights” too much.  In my time at Princeton, I was told that people have a “right” to eat meat every day of the week, a “right” to have a tray (not just a plate!) in the dining hall, and a “right” to make six figures straight after graduation.  But what if I say I have a “right” to go to a school that does not offend my values by reinforcing income inequality?  Throwing around the “r” word not only cheapens real rights—think, free speech or due process—but also shuts down the possibility of debate or compromise.  All of us have rights, but we also have responsibilities: our conversation should be about what duties we have as Princeton graduates entering a world in which we are incredibly privileged and, as a result, poised to do much more than just make money.

“It’s not Princeton’s job to tell students what they should do after graduation.”  Princeton offers its students a world-class education, which—even for students paying full tuition—is largely funded by others.  In exchange, it imposes certain obligations on members of the community to behave in certain ways and to fulfill certain requirements.  There would therefore be nothing drastic or new about telling grossly misbehaving financial companies to take recruiting off campus; it’d simply be an extension of existing standards that Princeton has about who gets access and support from Princeton.  This isn’t about where graduates are “allowed” to work, but which organizations and institutions get to receive Princeton’s institutional blessing.

“You’re not going to change anything, so why are you wasting your time?”  As I’ve written over and over again on this blog, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Our conviction that things are unchangeable is a big part of what prevents change from happening, since it provides easy cover for those of us who don’t want to act even when we know we should.  Princeton obviously does change, albeit slowly.  I was recently contacted by an alumnus who mentioned how, in the 1980s, people demanding that the university divest from apartheid were derided as wasting their time on a fool’s errand.  History proved them wrong.  Princeton can either join a national movement to rethink the place of finance in society—or it can, once again, be a laggard, and make Harvard look positively dynamic by comparison.

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* I speak only for myself here, not for the 70+ other individuals who have signed the letter.  Have you yet?  Send me an e-mail!

An Open Letter to the Princeton Community

After the tigers of Occupy Princeton mic-checked recruiting events for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, a few concerned alumni collaboratively drafted an Open Letter to Princeton Community to send to the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the university administration.  If you are an alum and want to sign it, shoot me an e-mail (also, let me know if you want to be on our e-mail list, discussing further actions that could be taken along this vein).

Bringing concerns about income inequality and economic injustice into the heart of American privilege is itself a good thing; as a Princeton alum, I also think it’s important to seize on this moment to try to change a deeply problematic culture of entitlement on campus (exhibit A-Z).  No letter drafted by a group of people is ever going to express any individual’s views perfectly.  I hope, though, that people who agree with the spirit of Occupy Princeton’s action will consider adding their names in support.

For those who can’t open links, the text is below.

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To the Princeton Community:

When we were at Princeton, we were often reminded that Princeton’s motto is ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.’ Despite this ideal, we have discovered that to many outside the Orange Bubble, Princeton symbolizes something much less noble: greed, privilege, and elitism. We believe that part of this perception stems from Princeton’s strong institutional support for careers in the financial services sector, an industry that includes firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, which have taken billions of dollars in public money and used it to pay excessive bonuses and manipulate our political system to their own advantage.

We applaud the students of Occupy Princeton for challenging Princeton’s dominant culture of political disengagement. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your peers and speak uncomfortable truths. Princeton graduates are entitled to work in the industry of their choosing, but if they do choose to work in finance, they should know they are entering an industry with a condemning historical record of breaching public trust and engaging in practices that run directly counter to Princeton’s motto. We believe that the Occupy Princeton protests send an important message to these financial institutions about the University’s values and serve to educate students considering a career in finance.

The burden of showing that Princeton University is more than an elite playground should not fall on the shoulders of students alone. The administration should support—not discipline—those students who are attempting to bring Princeton into a much-needed national conversation about income inequality and economic justice.  Moreover, we urge the administration to stop providing institutional support for recruiting on campus by the worst offenders of the financial industry, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, until they show that they meet basic standards of accountability and economic fair play.

Lastly, we call on fellow alumni to join us in making it clear to current undergraduates that there are better ways to use the immense privilege of a Princeton education. We say this not just to encourage students to look outside of finance, but also to suggest that they use the skills and connections they have developed at Princeton to achieve positive good from within financial careers.

It’s time to decide whether ‘the nation’s service’ refers to the entire nation, or just 1% of it.